Jasper is cleaning out his bedroom. He is decluttering. He is exhuming the detritus of a ten-year old because soon he will be eleven and eleven-year olds have moved on from Little Golden Books, and Dr Seuss.
Anything you don’t want just put in a pile because I will go through it, is my plea.
Because to me books are treasures. They are more than words on paper. Of course. A story, a sentence. It worms inside, to the heart of you. There are books that he loved, and then there are books that I loved, and hence read endlessly to a toddler who cared little about what was being told as long as he could turn the pages.
There is something special about a loved book – one you’ve read out loud to a child so many times that its words have worn a track through your brain. Like a single lane walking path through a wooded forest. Grass woven flat, as hard as concrete. Pine needles beneath your feet. Your mouth shapes the words before your eyes have read them. The pictures are so familiar. Like old photographs etched in your memory. The smell of a winter stew cooking as the sun goes down. The rumbling sound of a Kombi pulling into the drive. The tilt and flow of language.
Will you help me plant this grain of wheat?
Not I! said the duck…
Then I will plant it myself, said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
The industriousness of the Little Red Hen was always remarked upon. All that planting, reaping, carrying, turning flour into dough and baking was done without any help from the duck, the cat, the goose or the pig.
The selfishness of the “Not I’s” saw that they ended up with no bread. How right things were in the world of the Golden Book.
So I keep the Golden Book. First published 1954. I keep it for myself. Maybe one day I will read it to another small child. Maybe one day Jasper will unearth it in my old possessions and find himself on the forest path.
Cleaning out my parents house I find similar kept treasures from my childhood. Dolls’ clothes. Hand made babies’ dresses. Christmas decorations made in kindergarten from toilet rolls and cotton wool balls. My mother kept a book I had loved as a child. It was tucked away in camphor and would not have been looked at for years. Probably it had been forgotten about it many years previously. But there would have been a time when she held it over the garbage bag for Good Sammies and hesitated before dropping it in. She would have looked through it and remembered my delight in it. It would have brought a smile to her face. She had kept it as I am keeping the Little Red Hen now. It was so familiar when I found it, like I had looked at it only the day before, but it had not been seen or thought of for forty years. I turned the pages and found the favourite picture I had puzzled over. It was the story of a princess, but the pictures were not drawings, but photographs of dolls dressed in real fabric and with doll house sets. In one picture they sat at a table eating a royal meal and the food in the pictures must have been life-sized, since on a plate is a single pea that seems the size of an apple for the princess. This wrongness appealed to me. Everything else miniature and perfect, but the food. And I would wonder at the people who made the book. Did they run out of ideas? How did they imagine the princess would eat such a pea? What would an apple-sized pea taste like? How would I make the princess a meal?
With Jasper’s mountains of work and drawing there is always the question of what to throw away and what to keep. How many pages of scribbling can you really want? For a whole term at Montessori Jasper would bring home cardboard boxes glued together into towers and present them as if they were sculptures. We kept none. I squirrelled away a favourite blanket, a pair of booties, his wrist band from the hospital where he was delivered. I have not kept teeth or hair. And yet the book feels more powerful than some of these other treasured things because I can hear its magical song. Reading it aloud is a meditation back to mothering a toddler. When reading aloud at the end of the day signalled the respite that would soon be yours when he was in bed. There is a sighing to the reading of the story. It is short. It is complete. The tale needs no explanation. The little Red Hen; she had no help, she did it herself.